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Book Review 277: Enemy at the Gates

June 1, 2013 - Harry Eagar
ENEMY AT THE GATES: The Battle for Stalingrad, by William Craig. 457 pages illustrated. Konecky

I read William Craig’s “Enemy at the Gates” when it was published in 1973. Rereading it 40 years later, I was struck by how sketchy the military history is.

It’s there, but details are lacking. In part this was because the Russians had not revealed that much about their great victory. Walter Kerr, who was a correspondent during the battle, did not publish “The Secret of Stalingrad,” based on a visit to the then-new battle museum, until 1978.

But Craig’s outline of victory and defeat stands up well.

Another reason for his approach could have been Cornelius Ryan. Ryan’s “The Longest Day” was a huge bestseller. Craig adopts his technique – then novel but now practically obligatory – following the adventures of a few dozen men and women, with minimal connecting narrative.

Stalingrad may have been, as Craig says, the biggest battle of all time. It provided plenty of incident. Some were memorable. The pilgrimage of the lonely, trapped German soldiers to worship – there is hardly a better word for it – a lathe made in Germany that they found in a Russian tank factory stuck in my mind for four decades.

Yet another reason for the presentation of Stalingrad as a human rather than a political drama may have been less consciously chosen. In 1973, American triumphalism was still near it peak. We had defeated Hitler, and the Eastern Front was mysterious, less important and slightly ridiculous sideshow to the main event in France.

Only a few westerners, mostly European leftists, bought the USSR’s claims that it had been the dominant foe in the fight against Hitlerism.

To accept that stuck in the craw of proud Americans, and especially of the 100% Americans who would (in many cases) have preferred making common cause with Hitler against Russin Bolshevism.

Nonetheless, history really is on the side of the big battalions and today most historians have come around to the realization that Russia had defeated Germany in 1941, before the United States had begun to fight.


Article Comments



Jun-08-13 9:56 AM


William Craig's account of Stalingrad by way of opinion is a masterpiece, there is much human interest as the story unfolds such as thebackground to the Stalingrad madonna drawing or the humble butterfly arising from the ruins and the effect it had on one veteran. If you Google "Leaping Horseman Books" they are a specialist book supplier outlet on the Stalingrad kessel. Aloha.


Jun-06-13 9:35 PM

Russian T34 tanks could move better in mud than German tanks, because they were designed with wide treads for that purpose.

The Germans went with heavy tanks, which had a hard time crossing rivers, of which there were many in Ukraine.

The smaller T34 had a hard time in a punchout with a Panther or a Tiger, but when the Panthers and Tigers were stuck, the T34s could do what they liked.

It never came to it, but the US Army incompetently repeated the Germans' mistakes and built the Abrams tank, heavier even than a Tiger. Hardly any bridge in Europe could have carried it.


Jun-02-13 2:01 PM

I didn't see the movie. The sniper duel was in the book.

I don't know that the determination of the Russians is "rarely discussed." It was discussed by Werth, Salisbury and other reporters at the time.

Few Americans realize that Russia had beaten Germany by September 1941, when the Germans suffered a casualty they could not replace. It was all downhill from there.

Cold, then, had nothing to do with the outcome of the war, which was decided while it was still warm. Cold (and even more so, mud) did affect campaigns and battles.


Jun-02-13 10:41 AM

Hey dude, the cold was one of the nails in the Nazis coffin, but wars have long been won and lost from an army's logisticians deftness in keeping the supply lines open. On the other hand the blitzkrieg needs were too large and their lines were so stretched that the Nazis could not rearm, feed,and the list is long. But what is rarely discussed is the amazing determination of Russians both army and peasant not to give an inch without causing the Nazis blood curdling loses.


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